It was a hot August afternoon in Philadelphia. My co-teacher and I—we teach English to Speakers of Other Languages together—walked up to a family store that sold drinks, candy and snacks. One of our students, Stacy, lived on the second floor with her family. We brought fruit as a small gift.
We’ve done these visits for the past two years to strengthen the home-school connection. They’re also part of the response to intervention process. These visits have offered us a holistic view of our students. We always come away with an understanding of our students’ rich experiences and cultural backgrounds. Equally important, we have personal connections with the most important individuals in the children’s lives—the parents and caretakers.
Even before summer vacation starts, our school hosts transition meetings between the former teachers and the teachers for next year. My role is to gather information about the incoming students, including English language learners and those who qualify for special education. During the summer, I choose to visit the homes of English language learners and students who had behavioral challenges the year before.
I call the families to arrange a visit. I tell them I’d like an opportunity to get to know the students before the school year starts. My co-teachers and I usually devote one or two days in the summer to this process, designating about 20 minutes at each home. We sometimes recruit bilingual colleagues or enlist the help of older siblings to make communication clearer. For each family, we prepare open-ended questions for the parents to help us understand their hopes and dreams for their child. We also ask students questions about their interests and strengths. The meeting is very informal, and we leave time to answer their questions too.
Stacy’s home was one stop during a day that included six meetings. We sat behind the counter as we chatted with Stacy and her mom in Mandarin Chinese. Stacy was shy and did not say much during our meeting, but we learned about her interests and her family—two older siblings, a grandmother and two parents. We learned that Stacy speaks Fujianese at home, is a big sister and enjoys watching TV.
Stacy’s second-grade teachers were concerned about her sensitivity, academic independence and nervousness speaking in front of the class. But when we saw Stacy again in September at school, she was more comfortable. I was able to refer to her interests and home experiences in lessons. We made a good start to building a relationship.
I allowed Stacy to come to my room early each morning to help me and practice reading. If Stacy ever missed homework or needed extra tutoring, the family was cooperative; they welcomed the communication because they knew us. Now, Stacy regularly participates in class and has blossomed in many ways.
Family involvement takes many forms. We know that not all families will bake treats for fundraisers, chaperone a field trip, volunteer in the classroom, or attend school performances and conferences. If we are truly willing to partner and engage families in the work of educating children, we need to challenge our perceptions and levels of comfort and go beyond the school walls into our students’ communities. Whether these “home” visits take the form of attending piano recitals and baseball games or visiting a family-run business, they are a sincere gesture of connection and willingness to partner. Learning should be a two-way street. We may learn more about ourselves than we think.
Huynh is a third-grade literacy teacher in Philadelphia who is passionate about social justice in the classroom.